Today, 1 July 2022, marks the publication of Educational Experiences and Outcomes at the United World Colleges (UWC): An Investigation of Impact by a team of scholars at Project Zero, a research centre at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The five-year long research project involved nearly 4,834 UWC students, nearly 6,894 alumni and, for comparison purposes, 1,830 students from 13 non-UWC schools.
Project Zero and UWC have a shared belief in the critical role of education in developing human potential, and how it can support learners to thrive in an ever-changing world. UWC chose to commission the study to gain empirical research into the impact of its mission-driven educational model, and by extension, to better understand how global education as a whole can work to develop citizens who will go on to shape a more peaceful and sustainable future for all.
The study explored how a UWC education impacts the skills and attitudes of its students and alumni, and compared this with non-UWC peer institutions. Involving repeated observations of the same variables over a period of time, this is the first longitudinal study of its kind in the history of the UWC movement, and provides valuable lessons for the world of education as a whole.
“We wanted an authentic report that did not simply present a glossy overview of UWC, but something that will spark important conversations about how to shape and evolve the future of the UWC movement and influence discussions in the world of education globally. This report does both of these things, and today marks an important milestone in our still relatively short 60-year history,” says Faith Abiodun, Executive Director of UWC International. “The findings highlight some of the unique features of the UWC educational model that are unparalleled by peer institutions, but equally a number of important issues for us to address, which may drive some interesting debates within our movement. These are discussions which we relish having with our community and I’m pleased that we’ve already started to address some of these issues at both a movement-wide level and within UWC schools and colleges.”
Professor Howard Gardner, Principal Investigator of the study and Senior Director of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who led the research team, says: “I am grateful to UWC for enabling us to carry out this landmark study and to my colleagues, Shelby Clark and Danny Mucinskas, for spearheading the research and visiting nearly all UWC campuses with fellow team member Sarah Magagna. Details of the report are likely to stimulate comparisons—both within the UWC family and with respect to data from the comparison schools.
I have two fervent hopes. Firstly, I hope the report will catalyse discussions among UWC campuses about the primary mission of the movement and the most desirable forms of impact. Secondly, I hope the report will prove useful to the sector of secondary school education around the world, helping all educators to prepare young people for the challenges and opportunities of our time—which is really their time.”
UWC students and alumni cited the opportunity to form friendships with peers from different backgrounds, student diversity and the focus on interpersonal learning as some of the most impactful elements of a UWC education. They said these experiences led to changes in their attitudes, dispositions and values, such as open-mindedness, their views on diversity and multiculturalism and their capacity for social justice.
UWC alumni scored significantly higher than non-UWC alumni on social justice efficacy, suggesting they felt prepared to have a positive impact on their communities after graduation. Both UWC students and alumni reported that their school taught them “commitment to the ideals of peace,” significantly more so than their non-UWC peers.
The report also suggests a link between the myriad opportunities for autonomous learning at UWC schools with the development of key skills, including organisation, team building and collaboration, confidence and leadership, self discipline and responsibility.
Areas for Continued Work
Findings from the report reflect the increasing mental health stressors placed upon students, with UWC students and alumni commenting on the overall workload as a great source of stress. Research suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing concerns around student health and welfare in schools across the globe, and this was reflected in the experiences of students at UWC schools and colleges during the research.
The report also suggests UWC needs to continually cultivate a sense of inclusion and belonging in its schools and colleges so that every student can safely express their views, regardless of their backgrounds, beliefs or ideals.
Important Learnings for Global Education
Set in the context of the UWC model of education, the study offers important learning opportunities for educators around the world.
“This report is unprecedented on a global education scale,” comments Faith Abiodun. “Yes, it has given us something that highlights our positive impact and where we need to improve, but it also gives other education institutions insights into what students value and how we can better serve their needs. I’m looking forward to working with our schools and speaking to others in the global education community to build on what we’ve learnt from this study.”
The report acknowledges UWC’s commitment to sustainability as enshrined in our mission statement, but notes that more can be done to live up to this value, which is becoming an increasingly urgent theme on the global agenda. It also emphasises the need for mission-driven educational organisations to regularly check-in with their guiding principles to ensure clarity. While students and alumni agreed on the importance of the UWC mission and overall felt the mission was strongly represented in their UWC experiences, there were differences of opinion over which elements should be prioritised. While older alumni appear to have been more drawn to the subject of peace, younger alumni expressed feeling more aligned to discussions around sustainability, with an environmental focus.
Data also suggests that UWC could do more to support students’ transitions from school to the next stage of their lives. This is especially relevant for mission-driven institutions seeking to develop citizens who are able to positively contribute to the world through their service and careers.
Finally, the study suggests that high levels of stress caused by academic workload and current methods of grading and assessment detract from the true purpose of learning, thus diminishing the full exploration of the UWC mission. Recent studies into student mental health and welfare, suggests that prioritising students' learning and interests above grades is an increasingly relevant and serious consideration for schools globally.
For more information about the research project and to access the complete study visit www.uwc.org/impactstudy.